It feels a little bit like we need to remember that all of the lectionary passages in this season of the year aren’t intended to be read together. At the beginning of Ordinary Time, we made a choice to follow the “historic” selection of Hebrew texts, those that would tell the story of the creation, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the tribes of Israel, Moses and the Exodus. And yet, we do find that the reading do somehow “hang together.” This was sort of one of those weeks - “sort of”...
There is no doubt that as you study the Bible, you will see God at work in the world through amazing actions and through the voice of others. Certainly, the greatest of these actions in the Christian tradition is God's unbelievable act of love, incarnation and resurrection. But part of the reason that the biblical narrative is chocked full of these stories is because time and time again, humanity missed the point. The fall, the flood, the wilderness...right up and through a key piece of our lectionary this week, Jesus' parables about the Kingdom of God. Do we "get it" now?
It is difficult to write to any audience with relevance this week and skip talking about the tense environment in which we currently reside. By all accounts, we are in a financial tailspin that will affect the entire global economy. And to some extent, that tailspin is a product of a growing concern for our individual well-being at the expense of others well-being. (Ouch, that hurts, doesn't it?) Several weeks ago on the heels of the early news about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann preached a sermon at Mars Hill, an emergent congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he drew parallels between the economic disaster we are facing and the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem. And much has transpired since then. It really does call the question, what happens when we fail to be obedient and true?
The Hebrew scripture reading continues the Wilderness adventures of the Israelites. Moses is on Mount Sinai, and God is giving him the commandments. The people waiting below quake with fear and trembling because God's presence is visible to them in smoke and thunder on the mountainside. It is interesting to note that this is a "scissors and paste" version of the commandments as selected. Read the entire text and note what is missing from the lectionary..."You shall not bow down and worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments." Whew, harsh injunctions...and worth asking why it was cut from the selection. What do we do with that? This is a list of rules, and one would assume that breaking them comes with consequence. If you look at this text and set it in the context of the past three weeks and the next week's texts, it becomes even more overwhelming...one of the first things they Israelites do next is create an idol for worship!
Psalm 19 is another praise Psalm, this one with an intercession as well. The psalmist affirms the Law and its place in the world, but also acknowledges how hard it is to do right and asks for help in staying true.
We continue our reading in Philippians, a letter written by Paul from prison. Remember that Paul is writing to early Christian communities prior to the writing of the gospel texts. He was a Jewish leader - a Pharisee converted in a famous conversion encounter. He has shed the fetters of strict observance of Law that were not truly based in concern for the other to follow the new Law, or the restated Law, in Jesus Christ. Through Christ's resurrection, the Law has been reframed, and the greatest commandment is an interpretation of the base intention of the law as it was delivered to Moses - to love one another. Paul looking back at where he has been and knows that there are miles to go before he is finished...and he has confidence that he will end in the right place.
The passage from Matthew is the second of a series of three parables that attack the religious leadership in Jerusalem. At the time, Jesus has entered Jerusalem to the cheers of many, has driven merchants and money changers out of the temple, has had his authority questioned by the Pharisees and is aggressively responding with sharp criticism not of all of Israel, but of the leadership that has misinterpreted the law for their own gain and built a "castle in the air" of power and privilege at the expense of many. This particular parable points to the rejection of the prophets who have warned of misdirection in centuries past. He quotes Psalm 118, referring to himself as the cornerstone that is being rejected. And he condemns the leaders, reminding them that they will be broken to pieces. Harsh words, harsh judgment. They've missed the clues time and again, sought their own gain and this is the price they will pay. It is easy to understand their desire to kill him--they had control of religious life in Jerusalem (which was the center of the universe in Judaism), and this was a young man who was threatening their power by publicly calling their commitment and their leadership in to question.
This is a difficult week in the lectionary, juxtaposed against the pain that we find ourselves in right now. We are a nation divided politically and financially. And we wonder, have we forgotten to love one another along the way? Is it too late?
God is faithful. He turns back to his covenant people again and again.
What is our role in this relationship?
What do we need to do to respond faithfully?
How do we deal with authority and commandments in a time of chaos?
We didn't start the fire
It was always burning since the world's been turning
We didn't start the fire
No, we didn't light it
But we tried to fight it
“We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Billy Joel, 1989